Health and environment
Health and environment
The ‘One Health’ concept consists in an integrated approach of health based on a straightforward statement: the health of humans is closely connected to the health of animals, as well as to the environment. Sciensano believes in this vision and contemplates health from a transversal perspective, integrating the human, animal and environmental components.
Sciensano’s primary objective is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the interactions between people, animals and the environment in order to assess, prevent and control the various threats to public health. To achieve this goal, Sciensano can count on a solid in-house expertise combining different scientific disciplines:
- Due to the presence of toxins, germs or residues of pesticides, food safety can be seriously endangered. For this reason, Sciensano is convinced that monitoring and protecting the ecosystems, on the one hand, and controlling the animal and plant diseases, on the other hand, are crucial to safeguard public health, the food chain and the environment.
- Globalisation, climate changes, changes in travelling habits or intensive farming and agricultural practices involve, among others, an increase in the use of antibiotics, a poorer genetic diversity, closer contacts between animal species and between domestic or wild animal species and men. All this leads to a faster circulation of new emerging infectious diseases and – to some extent – a greater resistance of pathogens like some bacteria for instance. Sciensano is deeply committed to mitigating the impact of these changes on health and the environment.
SOME EXAMPLES OF OUR ACTIONS
Sciensano designed sustainable development indicators to measure the progress achieved in the use of environmental friendlier pesticides, which are therefore better for the consumers' health. Sciensano also assessed the presence of various types of contaminants like pesticides, mycotoxins or heavy metals in cereals grown in Belgium. It quantified the risks related to beer consumption, due to the presence of mycotoxins in cereals used to produce the beverage. At last, Sciensano conducts, through population surveys and laboratory analysis, quantitative research on the intake of pesticide residues present in vegetables grown in Belgium.
Sciensano evaluates the potential risks for human health and the environment related to the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, etc. On the international scene, Sciensano represents Belgium for all biosafety issues.
Wastewater treatment plant sludge
Sludge is commonly used in agriculture to enrich the soil and seems furthermore effective in preventing soil erosion. Nonetheless, serious doubts about its safe use continue to be raised, as it contains non-biodegradable pollutants which can build up in the soil and the groundwater, and ultimately contaminate the food chain. Sciensano carried out a risk study whose results were used to adapt the existing Belgian regulation on this matter.
Sciensano monitors the health effects of atmospheric pollution on health. In the Brussels-Capital Region for instance, our research identified priorities to orient a preventive health policy in case of pollution peaks in the capital.
Pollen and fungal spores
Since 1980, Sciensano coordinates Airallergy, the Belgian network for the monitoring of pollens and fungal spores in the air. The network aims to provide rapid and reliable information on the presence of allergens in the air to people who are allergic, to general practitioners and to pharmaceutical companies. It helps professionals to make a diagnosis and indicates to people suffering from allergies, the periods and regions in Belgium that are the most risky. Sciensano also collaborates in a European network, which makes it possible for our scientists to have a general overview on the progress of the pollen season throughout Europe.
While we spend much of our time inside schools, offices, houses, shops, etc., these indoor environments contain pollutants in sometimes much higher concentrations than outside. Sciensano carries out microbiological studies directly in homes and communities. It also analyses samples in laboratory in order to identify pollution sources likely to cause health problems. At the international level, Sciensano also works with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the frame of a program of indoor pollution monitoring in schools.
Whether you listen to the radio, surf on the internet, use your mobile phone or any other electrical device: electromagnetic field and non-ionising radiations are present everywhere in our environment. Sciensano evaluates the risks associated with mobile phone communications and other types of non-ionising radiations. Our experts participate in international meetings held by WHO-recognised bodies. Sciensano's toxicology laboratory is also part of a research consortium called the Belgian BioElectroMagnetics Group (BBEMG). The consortium aims at demonstrating whether or not there is a link between exposure to magnetic fields and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
On request of the health authorities, Sciensano conducts specific studies on the potential exposure of the population to chemicals or other sources of contamination. For example, Sciensano has studied, in collaboration with the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) and the Belgian Cancer Registry, whether certain types of cancer (leukemia and thyroid cancer) occur more often in the vicinity of the Belgian nuclear sites than elsewhere in the country.
Surveillance of Lyme disease
Environmental and climate changes have an impact on tick populations, which are important vectors of diseases affecting human health. In Europe, Lyme borreliosis is the most common tick-borne disease. Sciensano monitors the epidemiology of the disease in Belgium, based on different complementary sources of information. Surveillance of the vector in Belgium was initiated in June 2015, with the launch of an online platform called ‘TiquesNet’ for the reporting of tick bites by citizens. We also developed an application, allowing citizens to contribute to the surveillance of vector exposition. In addition to routine surveillance, Sciensano started in June 2016 a research project (HUMTICK) on the cost and burden of Lyme borreliosis and the occurrence of other tick-borne diseases in Belgium.